Well, what about that?….
(Apologies to American readers for the eurocentricity of this review, but you know how it is).
What a story!
Going into the singles on day three of the Ryder Cup, the US were leading 10-6. Totally on top. Oozing confidence. Those chants of USA, USA! ringing round the course. Surely they would reaffirm their dominance and extend their lead on day three, the singles. The Europeans, in recent times seen as strongest in the team format, with the US coming on strong in the individual battles, looked done for. There was just a sliver of hope towards the end of day two, as first Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia , then Ian Poulter and Rory McIlroy won their fourball contests against Woods/Stricker and Dufner/Zac Johnson respectively. Poulter had become the heart and soul of the European team, pumped up to the max as he birdied the last five holes, to take Europe into the lead for the first time in the match on the 17th hole. An amazing feat.
After a deflating Sunday afternoon at the Stoop, watching Harlequins lose for the first time this season, against a grimly efficient – and deadly dull – Saracens team, I settled onto the sofa at about 5pm, ready for a marathon session. To assuage my conscience, I assembled an IKEA stool for one of my daughters , finishing it only after having to take most of it apart two-thirds through, as I’d put two wooden supports the wrong way round on the first attempt. Lesson: multi-tasking not advised when assembling IKEA furniture!
From the off, something felt good about the Europeans. Luke Donald was at his metronomic best. Such an easy, economic style. He was moving swiftly ahead of one of the American heroes, Bubba Watson. Ian Poulter was in a ding dong battle with Keegan Bradley, another of the US stars of the first two days. Rory McIlroy was looking good too, notwithstanding the fact that he almost missed the start, and needed a police escort to get to Medinah, 11 minutes before tee off time. Some dubious excuse about thinking the tee off time of 12.25 Eastern time was actually central time. He’d have been slaughtered by the press if he’d lost his match. Instead it has become one of the happy highlights of the final day. Fourth off was a real quality encounter: the mighty Phil Mickelson against Justin Rose. Justin kicked off well, then Phil was looking strong, but Justin was hanging on in there.
At five Scottish veteran Paul Lawrie started surprisingly well against Brad Snedeker. He hit one amazing chip out of the rough into the hole to go 1 up at hole 4. At hole 9, he got an eagle to go 3 up. Wow, this was beginning to look exciting. Still most likely a US win, because there was a big block in the middle where the Americans looked to be on top, but at least the Europeans would be able to say they’d given it a good shot.
And so the action, and the scores, ebbed and flowed. There were few matches where one player was dominant. Donald, Lawrie, Westwood, but no-one else. Of course there were some amazing shots, some outrageously good putts. A special kind of tension, different to the normal strokeplay golf, where it’s every man for himself. The responsibility to the team, and the partisan crowd, give it an atmosphere like no other golf tournament. Raucous and raw. The nerves must really jangle and you could see that in some of the wayward shots. So many going into the bunkers, a few dropping into the water – there is lots of water at Medinah. But the recoveries, and some of the putting…. awesome!
As the event reached a climax, something strange was happening. There was a lot of blue on the scorecard. Blue being Europeans in the lead. Still that block of red in the middle, but thinning out, often back to the white A/S – all square. Right at the back of the proceedings, Tiger Woods was NOT crushing Francesco Molinara, as might have been expected. The lead was mostly with Molinari. It seemed odd, Tiger being last out. Captains usually do have someone good on the last play, just in case it goes down to the wire, but it didn’t feel right for Tiger not to be in the thick of those early battles. Throughout the contest, Tiger seemed to be a bit of an afterthought. A few great moments, but overall a little subdued, and even left out of the foursomes on the second day. Unprecedented. The new heroes were Bubba, and Keegan and Webb.
And then the matches began to be won and lost. Luke Donald, four up for ages, withstood a late charge by Bubba Watson, and won the match on the 17th, 2 &1. Paul Lawrie, fifth out, was second in, a crushing 5&3 winner. Ian Poulter went on another of his hot streaks late on, and came out on top, 2 up. Rory McIlroy completed the job against Simpson, 2&1. And in maybe the most exciting match of all, the pivotal game, Justin Rose birdied the last two holes – the 17th an immense putt, applauded by the ever-gracious Mickelson – and snuck past the great American, 1 up at the last. This was the moment when you really began to believe. The first five out – all blue… could it happen?
It still felt like the Americans would sneak it – the two Johnsons, Zac and Dustin, beat McDowell ( a disappointing Ryder Cup for him) and Colsaerts (who didn’t have too much in his trousers after all) to restore some balance. But Sergio Garcia grabbed a late victory over Jim Furyk, and Lee Westwood, almost in the shadows, had a solid 3&2 victory over Matt Kuchar. Dufner got one back for the Americans against Hanson. But slowly, imperceptibly, Europe started to look on for more than dignified defeat. It came down to the last two pairs, down to the wire… where Tiger was poised to do the job.
11th match, 18th hole, Martin Kaymer, the German with a five foot putt to halve the hole and win the match against Steve Stricker. Out of form this weekend… but he’s German, they are good at penalties, this is like penalties. He strokes the ball, it rolls slowly towards the hole. It’s in the hole!
(Hey, see how long I resisted that phrase).
Kaymer the hero, the Ryder Cup retained. Woods and Molinari all square with one to go. If Woods won it would be 14-14.
And so it came down to the last hole in the last match. Woods with a fairly short putt to win the match and tie the Ryder Cup. Tiger Woods. End of story. The ball drifted wide. He missed! Molinara with a four footer to halve the match, to win the whole thing for Europe… tension mounting. And then, Tiger gave him a gimme! Sportsmanlike isn’t the word. Admirable, but in the circumstances, reckless. Molinari could easily have missed that one. Granted the US couldn’t win, but they could have drawn. Heads held that bit higher. All square after a mighty battle. But no, Tiger conceded. Withdrew from the fray. Dejected. Would the super-competitive Tiger of old have contemplated such an action? An admirable act of respect for the European team. In keeping with the traditions that golf likes to pride itself on. But man, this was the Ryder Cup!
And so the celebrations began. Poulter to the fore – Europe’s man of the tournament. The captain, Jose Maria Olazabal, highly emotional, remembering his old friend, the great Seve Ballesteros, who died this year. The most exciting golfer I ever watched, a man who could conjure the wildest of escapes from the craziest of positions, and the man who revived the Ryder Cup, made it a contest again.
They were all saying it.
Seve, this one is for you…